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On the morning of July 15th, I went on a business trip to Clark. Taking the usual route up north, I saw that there was already a long queue of vehicles on the southbound side of NLEX. It stretched from the Bocaue Toll Plaza to just across the Shell Balagtas station, which was on the northbound side. That was about 4.4 kilometers away. I reckoned, there was probably a stalled vehicle or some issue with the toll booths and that it would be gone by the time I head home in the afternoon.  I was wrong.

By 4:16 p.m. that afternoon, I was met with a 2-hour jam on my way to the Bocaue Toll Plaza. Compounded by rain and the delay caused by vehicles jockeying for lane positions just before the toll plaza, the already time-consuming cash lane transactions deteriorated into a mess of epic proportions. I finally got to pay my toll by 6:45 PM. There went two hours of my life that I will never get back.

But there was an obvious solution to my woes that day. The near-empty RFID lanes were just waiting there to be utilized. And while a few cars did avail of the service and rewarded with the convenience it brought, the reality is many would still prefer to wait for minutes, or in my case hours, just to pay highway toll fees. 

Like many motorists, I have been wary of buying into the cashless transaction scheme of our tollways. When the first Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) system was implemented by the Metro Manila Skyway and the Southern Luzon Expressway in 2000 as the e-Pass, I never really saw the need to pay upfront for a gadget which I would hardly use. With the North Luzon Expressway following suit with its EC-tag system in 2005, I found it akin to highway robbery to have to pay for two devices just for the convenience of occasionally passing through tollways. A sentiment that, I strongly believe, is shared by the average motorist. 

“It is more of (the) resistance to change while at the same time believing they do not travel often enough to justify the need,” says Onyl Malabanan when asked why he believes ETC has not caught on with motorists. As a driver who has for years been commuting from Bulacan to Manila every week for work, he believes many still have a fear of handling the unfamiliar platform. Malabanan explains, “The reason why the cashless payment scheme never caught on was the resistance to change. Some are not willing to shell out P500 and to maintain the balance by topping it up.” 

Back when electronic tagging devices were introduced in the early 2000s, it cost an average motorist P1,700 for an e-Pass device and P2,000 for an EC-tag one. On top of these were the prepaid load amounts one needed to top-up the devices. It did not help that one would be ticketed with a traffic violation if they used the ETC lanes without the device, or even with insufficient load. 

Then there were the psychological barriers to technology adoption. “It is the Filipinos’ “tingi” mentality. Many will not pay for a deposit despite the faster processing through the tollbooth,” says Atty. Robby Consunji, a legal columnist for a popular motoring website. He further states, “The confusing labels, from RFID, ETC, EZ trip, Easy Pass, AutoSweep, etc., and the non-standard locations of these electronic toll lanes, left lane here then right lane there, from the two toll operators make the system hard to understand.”

It did not help either that both systems have had their fair share of bugs. Anecdotal stories on social media show how despite topping up the ETC device, the system would not allow the car through the gate. A stressful moment for drivers who had to contend with a staredown from those stalled behind. 

Atty. Consunji continues to experience the same system glitches today with his SLEX RFID. “My SLEX ETC / RFID works automatically 20% of the time depending on the tollbooth. I still need to show the card 80% of the time.” And up north, issues with RFID detection, failed reloading of RFID accounts, lost balances, and shoddy, unresponsive customer service also continue to hound ETC and RFID-adopting motorists. 

All these horror stories continue to make motorists shy away from the adoption of ETC payment despite its obvious advantages. 

Data from a study published in the Journal of the Eastern Asia Society for Transportation Studies in 2013 entitled, “Evaluation of Philippines’ Electronic Toll Collection System for North Luzon Expressway,” shows that motorists who took the ETC lanes had an average service time of 1.63 seconds in NLEX Balintawak and 1.68 seconds in NLEX Bocaue toll plazas. This meant that it only took a little over 1.5 seconds to slow down at the ETC toll lane, get recognized by the system, and be let through. 

Compared this to the service times at manual or cash lanes which took about 29.75 seconds in NLEX Balintawak and 15.98 seconds in NLEX Bocaue respectively. SLEX cash lane service times averaged about the same with NLEX Bocaue at 15 seconds. These service times combined  those who paid exact tolls with those who paid with larger denominations. Naturally, large bill transactions would cause a longer delay as a teller in the cash lane needed to count the change before handing it over to the driver who in turn would count it again. And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where the delay begins to ruin our day. Every single day.

Twenty years since the introduction of the first ETC in our tollways, we are still nowhere near mass adoption of the cashless payment scheme. But if there was one positive thing that the COVID-19 pandemic did, it finally forced us to change.

Last August 15, The Department of Transportation directed both San Miguel Corporation and Metro Pacific Tollways to implement cashless transactions in the tollways they operate no later than November 2, 2020. SMC has already announced it will make Skyway, NAIAX, and SLEX cashless by October 15 with its now free-to-install Autosweep RFID system. MPT will be phasing out  its old Easytip devices in favor of the Easytip RFID sticker platform as it converts 100 toll lanes in NLEX to accommodate the new technology. Still, both operators have yet to integrate their services. And to the everyday drivers like us,  this is still a pain point that remains to be resolved. 

With the impending full implementation of cashless transactions in our tollways this November, and the low usage rate for electronic payments, currently at 30% with NLEX for example, it looks like the toll operators will expect a sudden surge of RFID applicants in the next few weeks. Despite its well-meaning rationale however, the whole exercise will be futile if the implementation will be plagued by inefficiencies and technological glitches, ultimately  handled by unresponsive customer service. To add to the operators’ woes, expect the clueless and hardheaded motorists to disrupt the system as well come October and November as they feign ignorance to mask their stubbornness. 

One thing is sure though, in order for all stakeholders to successfully effect change in the archaic system, we ourselves must be willing to change. And that change cannot come any sooner and be justified any better.

I’m getting my RFID sticker installed now. Who’s with me?

(A reader pointed out that EasyTrip charges an additional 2.5 per cent additional if payments are hooked via credit card unlike AutoSweep which has no additional charges-ED)